Brain Atrophy Responsible For Religious Belief?

Hippo's campusReaders can help me choose the best metaphor. (1) A snowball which starts the size of a pea but gains in strength and speed as it rolls downhill, mindlessly consuming all in its path; or (2) An avalanche, a furious, powerful deluge which is set off by some small thing, mindlessly consuming all in its path.

The application is to fMRI and other imaging studies of the brain which show that some “aberrant” (i.e. non-leftist) behavior can be pinned to some small region inside the skull. These statistical studies, which were nonexistent just a short while ago, now pop up weekly. Each works cites the others, and in so doing hopes to convince by sheer mass. Like a snowball or avalanche. Call it Death by Correlation, or Attack of the P-Value.

We have seen dark triads, enjoyment of custom, faith, and many, many others, all said to be caused by quirks in the brains of conservatives and theists. Today’s example is “Being ‘Born-Again’ Linked to More Brain Atrophy.” Well, at least this is clear enough. Rotting, shriveling brains “linked” to faith.

The abstract of the peer-reviewed paper by Amy Owen et alia is instructive. It opens,

Despite a growing interest in the ways spiritual beliefs and practices are reflected in brain activity, there have been relatively few studies using neuroimaging data to assess potential relationships between religious factors and structural neuroanatomy.

That sentence is paradigmatic: “Despite interest in X, we have not yet seen work in subgroup Y” opens many papers. It suggests a bandwagon groaning under the weight of scientists with hyperactive pituitaries, or whatever cranial organ is responsible for copycat research—and according to these folks some such organ must exist.

As depressing as this beginning is, let’s push on. Our data-mining discovery-of-the-day comes from comparing “religious factors and hippocampal volume change using high-resolution MRI data of a sample of 268 older adults.” Main claim: “Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience.” And there you have it: withered brains produce faith. In case the connotation wasn’t obvious, the press article reminds, “Shrinkage of the hippocampus is also associated with depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

(You know, it’s not often I brag or boast or plead, but I should receive some kind of humanitarian award for reading these papers so you don’t have to.)

Participants, with double the number of women, mean age near 70, were measured twice, a baseline and follow-up—follow-ups were not consistent: times “ranged from 2—8 years.” Participants were “those meeting DSM-IV criteria for major depressive disorder” and those “never-depressed”. They never tell us how many in this study were depressed and how many not. Ah, who needs rigor? This is statistics!

Affiliation was queried: non-born-again, born-again Protestant, Catholic, and Other. Only 19—just 19; a mere 19; 7%—listed no religion. Those claiming not to be born again were asked whether they had had “life-changing religious experiences” (LCRE).

Now, over the course of follow-up, twenty-two—that is, 22, which is 1 more than 21—people were newly born again and 23 others had new LCREs. That is 55 total, folks, which is nearly three times as many who claimed no religion prior to the study. That must mean that many people merely reported switching their religious label. How did the researchers handle this ambiguity in their statistical models?

(I really am going to have to devise a graphic which indicates crickets chirping.)

Understand, dear reader: the evidence for this study is entirely statistical, the result of regression models producing publishable p-values. They created two models for change in (falsely assumed error-free) measures of the left and right hippocampus. For the LH model, every measure of religion, pre or post, gave negative model coefficients except “Other” (but that had an unacceptable p-value). This includes “None,” which I remind us means no religion. Same for the RH model, except “Other” was negative here; “None” was still negative. Negative means the item shrank the hippocampus.

Unfortunately for consistency in reporting, newly born-again status was not significant in either model; neither were new LCREs (baseline for both was). And do you know what? The authors did not report any kind of baseline comparison of hippocampus size and religious belief. Must have slipped their minds—which cranial organ was responsible for this error we do not yet know; further studies might tell us.

Now, participants were old. Yet, somehow, the model coefficient for “Duration in study” was positive for the LH model and negative for the RH model. How can this be? Aging causes the left but not the right hippocampus to grow? By golly, Owen has discovered that enrollment in fMRI studies encourages hippocampus growth! On the left side only, alas; the p-values aren’t there yet, but this is early days: more research is needed. Send donations.

As always, the most fun is had by reading the discussion, where authors allow their minds to range freely over possible explanations of the data. I was going to summarize these curious cogitations, but I quailed after reading, “Research on temporal lobe epilepsy indicates that features of hyper-religiosity may be positively associated with hippocampal atrophy, but findings are mixed.” Good grief. I had not the strength to continue.

But I did check: they hadn’t even an inkling that their results were a statistical artifact or due to a sloppy experimental protocol and even sloppier analysis. I blame myself and other statisticians for this. I really do.


  1. Wayne

    My understanding of the paper, based on your quotes, is darker than yours. They don’t appear to be saying that shriveled brains cause religious faith, but rather that religious faith causes shriveled brains. Which fits in with their world view that to have faith is to commit intellectual suicide.

  2. Big Mike

    This is emblematic of the rise of venality and corruption that I think presages the “creative destruction” of our current mode of civilization. Even science is no longer science, and corruption permeates every facet of every institution. It is civilizational osteoporosis writ large.

    I pity people who author the kind of tripe that appears in this particular “study” because, if this nonsense is indicative of the quality of their thinking, they may never know the humbling thrill that accompanies genuine insight.

    That being said, the Quixotic quest for “Artificial Intelligence” has been revealing in that, while failing, as it always will, to create a mind, it has succeeded in demonstrating multitudes of things that intelligence is not. So perhaps there is some value in such an easy-to-refute study.

  3. William Sears

    The precursor to this type of research occurred and continues to occur in education. In every case statistical methods are used in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of socialist inspired pedagogy over traditional teaching methods. I have been following these attempts for physics and mathematics for a number of years (decades) and I can assure you that the arguments and research quality is as low as the examples that you have presented. Some of this has been discussed at length at the web-site Education research seems to be the only area where failure and the continued degradation of the education system is rewarded.

    Humanitarian Award: You have my vote. Let’s call it the Massive Articles of Tenacious Tedium (Matt) award.

  4. Tom S

    An expert usually reads enriching, eye-opening articles published in top-tier journals. You don’t have to waste your time sorting through the heaps of garbage. If you look in the dark, you’d find no light.

  5. Rich

    On the other hand, people with a strong religious faith been shown (insert reference to peer-reviewed literature here) to live longer happier lives. Perhaps we can simplify the process by having part of our hippocampus removed!

    Mind you, they mentioned the amygdala. How can they be wrong if they mentioned the amygdala?

  6. DavidC


    Setting aside the subtleties of the paper, if any, I can’t help draw the conclusion that too much funding is available for research. Say’s Law, “Supply creates its own demand” seems to work in the following way in this market, a supply of funding creates demand for research, irrespective of quality or value. The solution; reduce funding. Cut it a lot.


  7. This paper is an example of a major tenant of “post normal” research in many institutions and government laboratories. The outcome of a “post normal” research program is the need for more research to the answer the questions discovered in setting up a research program to answer a question nobody asked or wanted to know the answer to. In addition this research study used faulty statistical methods which are bound to reveal unanswered ambiguous questions that the researchers say need to be answered even when the results of the research are totally invalid.

  8. Noblesse Oblige

    “I blame myself and other statisticians for this. I really do.”

    Sorry but you’re nothing special. All of us share the guilt for letting this happen — the daily parade of agenda-driven garbage.

    The only solution is to cut off the blood supply — the money. Maybe someone can monitor the effect of funding withdrawal on the fMRI of those deprived of their entitlement.

  9. Speed

    Is neuroscience abandoning the term, “chemical imbalance?”

  10. Abby Normal

    I’d pay money to see them try this on a group of Muslims.

  11. K2

    History repeats.

    Progressives love eugenics. Numerous papers were published in that field which underwrote laws for the sterilization of blacks and morons.

    Next on the agenda: the dysfunctional brains of Joos.

  12. Ken

    The paper reports a correlation–but without complete context: i.e. how long after a conversion did one’s hippocampus atrophy, or, did an atrophied hippocampus predispose one to become a “born again” Christian.

    We know that the hippocampus is intricately involved in the formation of memory and the consolidation of new information (aka “thinking” by some, not all, definitions), and, we know about the brain’s neuroplasticity — its ability to “rewire” itself given various stimulation. Note that “thinking” requires real effort–this can even be measured by glucose consumption, etc. An internet search of London Cabbies, before & after their two-year training program, illustrates how profound such changes are in brain areas assocated with spatial relationships (e.g. maps, routes, etc.).

    Thus, its hardly surprising to find that a brain structure used to “think” [where to “think” is characterized by processing new information] would be atrophied in people that no longer “think” (and thus exercise that brain organ) due to any reason — intellectual laziness (giving up thinking to use “God’s will” as a default ‘excuse’), or, due to aging or other causes that intrude to prevent thinking (we know humans gravitate to finding patterns & explanations in nature & complexity…and where thinking is impaired or undeveloped [as in kids] “magical thinking” in many forms prevails.

    So, why did the group observed self-segregate (in a sense) to a type of “magical thinking” were they already predisposed (e.g. by age-related dementia) or other factors.

    It cannot be ignored that the implicit presumption in both the study and this blog’s critique is that the form of religious belief chosen is valid–that it actually conforms to an established doctrine/theology. As many religious note, much of the “born again” variety rampant in the USA does not comport with historical doctrines or biblical narrative, and reflects a significant corruption of what Christian faith was & really is (Newsweek, liberal as ever, even recently had a major article noting this). The study suggests this particular form of corrupted (fancifal) faith was the type adopted–which puts it more in the usual psychiatric category of “magical thinking” than true religion.

    When viewed in terms of neuroplasticity & so on the findings really aren’t surprising…but the sampling is incomplete as undoubtedly other types of magical thinking will be revealed to show the same physical phenomena. Also, it is unclear which came first–the adoption of a new belief then brain change or vice versa. One could expect both.

  13. Wayne

    A major philosophical problem with the study is thinking that faith/belief and thinking/analyzing are two ends of a single spectrum, with those who have more (religious) faith/belief falling at one end and those who think/analyze falling at the other.

    I do know people of religious faith who don’t analyze: they accept what they are told and every new piece of information they obtain is simply dropped into a pre-existing bin as defined by their faith. I also know people of religious faith who analyze everything and for whom many new pieces of information are used as challenges to their faith.

    Not to mention that these two groups of people can act differently in different parts of their lives. You can be absolutely thinking/analyzing/skeptical in your vocation, but not in your consideration of morals or religious dogma, and vice versa. How do you account for that?

    I also know people who are non- and perhaps anti-religious who exhibit an enormous amount of faith and lack of analysis/thinking/skepticism. The recent scandal where Dr. Gleick essentially committed wire fraud to steal information from the Heartland Institute is an example. Here is someone with a PhD whose religion has essentially become environmentalism (not generally considered a religion by those who dislike religion), who had such faith that the Devil (Big Oil) had possessed an Evil Prophet (Heartland Institute) that he broke the law to prove it… except he didn’t prove any such thing. It was no more true than the religious parent who tried to exorcise a demon from their sick child instead of taking them to a doctor, and the child died.

    Of course, it’s self-serving for the study’s authors to create a scale in which they are at one end, labeled as Thinkers, and those they dislike are at the other end, labeled as Believers.

  14. Outlier

    Help with your metaphors: #1 can happen, in just-right (ie, rare) circumstances, and is not the “consuming all” thing you describe. It is a symptom that a regular avalanche is likely. #2 is common, an unstable buildup is released by a relatively minor trigger. fMRI studies look more like a bandwagon effect to me.

    “I blame myself and other statisticians for this.” It sounds like untrained civilians playing with the big guns again.

    Has anyone done any fMRI-phrenology studies on masochism yet?

    Here are two things to read which you will find much more engaging.
    Judith Curry’s blog Climate Etc discusses:

    Well, we had a lot of fun with the Republican Brain. Here is another book with some similar themes, but one that isn’t partisan. Jonathan Haidt has written a book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

    And speaking of atheism and scientism, the late Christopher Hitchens’s book
    is the one you want to read. This is not so much a God-does-not-exist book as it is a book claiming that the God of the major religions is man-made and ~you can have your faith, but keep your religion out of my life~

    Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically

    and then he goes on to take a jab at Richard Dawkins.

    BTW, Hitchens was an International Socialist who saw the light and converted to being a conservative.

  15. Obviously, people with stronger brains were religious when young. It’s a case of “I found it!” vs. “I never lost it!”

    From “The Old Man’s Comforts” by Robert Southey: “In the days of my youth I remembered my God, And He has not forgotten my age.”

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